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News Release

For immediate use 

Dec. 15, 2005 -- No. 626

UNC Library provides free online source
of information on Southern Jewish history

CHAPEL HILL — A new Web site created by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library opens a digital window on Jewish history and life in the American South.

"A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life" chronicles the story of southern Jewish settlers and their descendants from the late 1600s through the 21st century.

The free site,, recounts generations of history with portraits, maps, historical documents, ritual books and objects from the early period through the present. Visitors can listen to interviews featuring voices from the past and read transcripts of the tales. Pictures and portraits tell more of the story.

"Scrambled eggs and lox – that’s what I’d have every morning – with grits," says Sandra Garfinkel Shapiro, a source in one of the site’s audio casts. Shapiro, a South Carolinian born in 1935, refers to the traditional Jewish dish of smoked salmon. "You’d say it’s Southern-Yiddish," she says. Text accompanying the stories provides context and explanation.

The site is organized in four sections. "First Families" begins with the coming of Jewish settlers to Carolina in the late 1600s and ends about 1820. "This Happy Land" portrays religious life before the Civil War and culminates with the Confederate defeat.

"Pledging Allegiance" opens with the immigration of European Jews and spans the two World Wars. The site finishes with "Palmetto Jews," a portfolio of photographs of the Jewish South by Bill Aron, a California photographer recognized for award-winning documentation of American Jewish life.

"‘A Portion of the People’ is a long-anticipated educational tool for those interested in American Jewish history," said Dr. Marcie Ferris, associate director of the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and an assistant professor of American studies in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The phrase "a portion of the people" comes from a letter written in 1816 by Charleston native Isaac Harby to Secretary of State James Monroe. In the letter, he tells the future president that Jews "are by no means to be considered as a Religious sect, tolerated by government; they constitute a portion of the People."

The Library of Congress commemorated 350 years of Jewish life in America last year. Its "From Haven to Home" exhibition, which featured more than 150 items from the Library’s collections, marked the arrival of 23 Jews in New Amsterdam (New York City) in 1654.

The UNC Library’s site offers material from a recent traveling exhibit undertaken by the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. That exhibit, also titled "A Portion of the People," used information from more than a half-dozen museums, libraries and historical societies.

"It was important to preserve ‘A Portion of the People’ for future generations of scholars and students of the American experience," Ferris said. "Essentially, project scholars took the exhibit and put it online."

Collaboration among representatives of UNC’s Davis Library, the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, the McKissick Museum and Dr. Dale Rosengarten of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston, who curated the exhibit, brought about the new UNC Web site.

The UNC Library’s Web team programmed the site in coordination with Rosengarten, who wrote the text for the site. Experts from the UNC Library’s North Carolina Collection provided technical guidance.

Debra Hanken Kurtz, the library’s Web development coordinator, said the content-rich site is still expanding. In the next few years, the staff will add information to the "Pledging Allegiance" section, including stories and artifacts from the Holocaust period. The enhanced site will provide insight into a difficult part of America’s past.

"When you read about history, you learn the factual overview," Kurtz said. "But when you hear the stories of history in the voices of people who lived it, there's a connection that really resonates. With ‘A Portion of the People,’ we can relate to others on a very human level."

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Web site contact: Debra Hanken Kurtz,
News Services contact:
L.J. Toler, (919) 962-8589